Right now, I’m sitting on a shinkansen, or bullet-train, speeding my way towards Nagoya for the next instalment of my Japanese adventure. I made a bit of a snafu this morning when, having missed my train first thing, I jumped on the next train headed for Nagoya. When the ticket inspector came round he looked at my JR Pass and started speaking very quickly in Japanese, pointing to the terms and conditions on the back. As confusion clearly reigned on my face, he told me in English my pass wasn’t valid on this train. I was mortified, and worried that I’d be whacked with a massive fine, but thankfully he just told me to change at the next station, Shin-Yukohama.
Reading the back of my pass, I realised I’d boarded pretty much the only JR train you can’t use the JR Pass on, the Nozomi. I’m not sure what the difference is, except that the Nozomi made fewer stops between Tokyo and Nagoya, and has wifi, whereas this train does not. This train also has a smoking car, which I just discovered to my disgust.
Even so, the JR Pass is a fantastic deal if you’re getting about a bit in Japan. All the guide books say this, and my friends who had been to Japan said it, and I still wasn’t truly convinced. How can something that costs £287 be a great deal? And then I read somewhere that it’s roughly equivalent to the cost of a return ticket to Kyoto and I was sold. I got a two week pass that gives me unlimited travel on most JR lines (including the Yamanote line in Tokyo, which goes through most of the tourist destination stops). Having the pass makes you feel like royalty because you show it, and they just wave you through.
JR also have a really useful website for planning journeys, much like Transport for London’s Journey Planner, but for the whole of Japan: www.hyperdia.com They have an English language version, and I would highly recommend it to anyone planning their travel around Japan.
Yesterday I went to check out Hakone National Park. I picked about the worst day for it as the weather was drizzly and completely overcast, but it was still a really nice trip, and I got to try out seven different types of transport: from the mundane bus and train, to the highlights of funicular, cable car and pirate ship! Okay, the pirate ship was more of a ferry decked out to look like a pirate ship, but I’m easily amused so it worked for me. I took my first shinkansen to Odawara and bought a Hakone Free Pass for 3,900 yen (about £26 at the current exchange rate).
With the Free Pass you can do the Hakone circuit once, but get on and off at different stops along the way, and take two or three days to go round the circuit. Hakone is famous for its hot springs, so many people take a more leisurely route and stay overnight at a ryokan to soak in the onsen. There are quite a few museums and gardens along the way, including an open air museum that’s supposed to have an impressive Picasso collection, but I was in a hurry and skipped it. The whole journey to and around Hakone and back again took about 7 hours. Odakyu is the company who run the transport around Hakone, and their website is more useful than anything else I found online about Hakone: http://www.odakyu.jp/english/freepass/hakone_01.html
Even with the landscape shrouded in mist it was a pretty spectacular journey over the mountains and volcanoes. The cable car went over a deep schism caused by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, and we could see jets of steam coming from the earth and smell the sulphur. I even managed to glimpse Mt Fuji through the clouds!
After taking the pirate ship across lake Ashi to Hakone-Moto (with its beautiful torii gate floating in the lake), I walked to the shrine. The path to the shrine is lined with 400 year old cedars, and for about 5 minutes I didn’t see a soul. One of the most tranquil and joyous moments I’ve had in Japan so far.